The hubris of the Bush administration, manifested in the disaster that is Iraq, powerfully reminds voters to consider the personal qualities of the men who seek the White House. Inevitably, those qualities and characteristics, including sense of self, perspective and recognition of one’s limitations, will be reflected in the core of a president’s decision-making process. It cannot be otherwise. While mistakes can — and surely will — be made, there are mistakes and then there are mistakes. The war in Iraq reflects the worse kind, that of folly, arrogance and presumption.
A president’s sense of self, including an awareness of limitations — including those imposed by law — are critical to his performance. Gerald Ford was surely right when, upon assuming the presidency, he described himself as a “Ford, not a Lincoln.” A genuinely decent human being, Ford restored dignity to the office, plundered by Richard Nixon and his henchmen. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of the greats, nevertheless recognized his limitations and frankly confessed that his presidency was “controlled by events.” George Washington, an acute judge of character and a first-rate administrator, was nonetheless cognizant of his vanity and sought to control it.
Other presidents, unmindful of limitations — political, legal, personal and otherwise — have seen ruin when they might have achieved success. Lyndon Johnson succumbed to the madness of the Vietnam War and traded the promise of greatness. Bill Clinton’s presidency was the stuff of Greek tragedy.
Following his retirement, Harry Truman returned home to Independence, Mo. In those days, there was no Secret Service protection for an ex-president. Truman’s home didn’t even have a lock on the gate.
Consider this episode as shared by Clifton Truman Daniel, Truman’s grandson. One day, a man driving by Truman’s house suffered a flat tire. He walked to the front door and rang the doorbell. The man didn’t know where he was. Truman answered the door. The man explained his problem and asked whether he could use the phone. Truman replied: “Sure, Go on. Use it. That’s terrible.”
The man entered the house, called the local garage for assistance and was told that a truck would arrive in about 15 minutes. The guy told Truman that he would wait by the truck. Truman replied: “No, you don’t. You sit down here. We will talk.”
They sat, talked and had a nice time.
When the truck showed up, they walked to the front door, and the man shook Truman’s hand.
As the man got halfway down the front steps, he turned to the ex-president and said, “You know something? You look like that SOB, Harry Truman.”
Truman smiled, and said, “I am that SOB.”
Now, that’s a sense of self.
Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and presidential power.